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Saturday, August 28, 2010

Google 'Aims Beyond Skype' With Web Calls

Google has added a feature allowing Gmail users to make phone calls from their email accounts, in a move that has had analysts questioning the firm's aim.

People on Gmail can already call each other online using voice and video chat, but the new service allows them to ring contacts when they are away from their computers.

"We've been testing this feature internally and have found it to be useful in a lot of situations, ranging from making a quick call to a restaurant, to placing a call when you’re in an area with bad reception," said Google on its blog.

The service is currently only available to US users of Gmail, but Google said it planned to make the service more widely available soon, and promised cheap international calling rates.

At first glance, the Gmail phone option puts Google in direct competition with leading web call firm Skype as well as traditional landline operators.

However, experts say the move is unlikely to have been made solely on the basis of taking business from these firms, as their profits are modest compared to Google's huge revenue stream.

Technology magazine Wired.com suggests the California-based firm is instead attempting to "displace Facebook as the centre of online identity and social networking".

It points out that the phone call service gives Gmail users a compelling reason to stay logged in to their account and opens a door for Google to track their online activity.

This, says Sky News Tech Talk blogger Christer Holloman, is key to the logic behind the rollout.

"This isn't about rivalling Skype and it's not about Facebook either. It's about Google's long-term objective to become the number one point of call for consumer services," he said.

"The holy grail for any online proposition is to increase face time, which increases the length of time available for advertising.

"Google doesn't make money through offering services - I'm actually surprised they're charging to make calls - but they make money, and lots of it, through adverts."

Google explained that to make a call through its service, users should click on the "call phone" option above their chat contacts list in Gmail and type in the number or enter a contact's name.

Calls that cost money will be charged from an online account that users can top up with a credit card, Google said.